Thursday, August 7, 2008

Jewel Orchids: Growing for Foliage

Orchids grown primarily for their leaves? Sure, I got a bunch of them that haven't bloomed in years, so I'm growing them for the foliage! But seriously, folks; though many of us may have counted a ludisia (old name: haemaria) discolor among of our first orchids, the very idea of growing orchids for their foliage display rather than their flowers somehow goes against the grain of orchid growing. For that reason, jewel orchids have long remained hidden gems, so to speak. They achieved brief popularity in the late 60s and 70s when gardening under lights became a fad, but mostly remain a sideshow to orchid flowers rather than a respectable group of their own. There are two very good reasons why the situation is about to change, though. The first is that, during times of high energy costs, people tend to gravitate towards orchids that are smaller and have lower light requirements, so in this age of astronomical heating bills, don't be surprised to see more vendors offering jewel orchids. The second is that a few nurseries are introducing new species and hybrids, and a number of these push the concept of jewel orchids in new directions; renowned orchidist Harold Koopowitz coined the phrase "jewel and painted leaf orchids" to describe the full range of orchids with attractive leaves. Even without these two global factors, there is plenty for hom orchid growers to like about jewel and painted leaf orchids. Many are minis or compact in habit: a whole collection of jewel orchids takes up a small space, even in a crowded apartment. Most grow in low light conditions; you can put them in places too dim for other orchids and they'll do just fine. Finally, as long as you know their growing likes and dislikes, they're easy maintain, and some are extremely easy to propagate. A few even have pretty flowers -- but that's just extra.

{NOTE: This article owes a special thanks to Dr. Leon Glicenstein of Hoosier Orchid Company, hybridizer extraordinaire, who gave a terrific lecture on Jewel Orchids at the WOC in Miami and was very generous with his time and knowledge.}

Jewel Orchids


The original "jewel orchids" are a number of small, spreading terrestrial species of the subtribe Goodyerinae from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which grow on the floor of damp jungles among leaf litter and moss. Their leaves, particularly the veins, have a bright, almost electric glow to them, hence the "jewel" name. The most familiar, the aforementioned Ludisia discolor, has been in cultivation for over a hundred years, and comes in a number of leaf patterns. The most common, var. dawsonia, has very dark green, almost black, velvety leaves with luminous red veins. I keep expecting to see a picture of Elvis appear on one, but it hasn't happened yet. Var. nigrescens is similar, but with only a single, central red vein on each dark leaf, for an understated yet dramatic look. Var. alba has green leaves with very pale cream veins in a more netted pattern, and is generally smaller than the other varieties in leaf and habit. Ludisias spike during winter, and bear many 1/4" white flowers, attractive in their own right, especially on a specimen plant with multiple spikes. But wait, there's more! A newly discovered cultivar of var. nigrescens, named 'Ambrosia,' received a JC/AOS for its fragrant flowers, which may explain old reports that Ludisias are fragrant; though all the varieties I've smelled so far are not.

Perhaps the next most common genus is Macodes. Mac. petiola, with shining green leaves laced with sparkling veins that look like lightning in bright light, is a popular species. Macodes sanderiana, a closely related species, can be distinguished by the wavy edges on the leaves. There is a legend about this orchid, told in Borneo, that a goddess decided to visit the local mortals one day and came down from the sky, wearing her shining cloak. The villagers were scared of her supernatural appearance, and, in a sad comment on human nature, tried to kill what they feared. As the goddess ran away, a few threads from her cloak caught on a rock and turned to Macodes plants. Some of the calmer villagers noticed the plants and brought them back to their temple, where they promptly died (a cautionary tale to all orchid growers!) But when the villagers prayed to the goddess, she came back bringing new plants with her. Whether their origin is truly divine or not, Macodes are true minis, and small specimens in particular need attention so that they neither dry out completely nor get their tiny roots waterlogged, which will result, as the story tells us, in swift death. Patience, however, is rewarded with one of the best foliage displays around.

Dossinia is next on the popular scale; Doss. marmorata has been around for a while, but is not commonly grown; wild-collected plants proved very difficult to grow. However, Dr. Glicenstein reports that newer seed-grown specimens are much easier to cultivate, and that's good news; this is a gorgeous orchid with dark green leaves veined with iridescent gold. Flowers are insignificant, but with these leaves; who needs 'em?

If any genus can outshine Macodes and Dossinia, it is Anoectochilus, a group of about 35 species with some of the most fantastic leaf patterns ever; mostly dark greenish-red background with bright gold or copper veins. Anct. burmannicus, aka chapaensis, has the added bonus of bright yellow flowers, a change of pace from the usual white. Several of the species have interesting fringes on the flower lip; Anct. formosanus has yellow fringes on a divided white lip which makes the flowers look like tiny winged insects!

The final important genus for jewel orchids is Goodyera, a pan-global genus that includes hardy species native to North America and temperate Asia as well as tropical species. Typically growing a rosette of white-spotted or marked green leaves, the flowers are usually small and not showy. Good. daubeniensis from Taiwan is a well-known representative of the tropical species; Good. hispida, from the Himalayas, has tiny crystalline hairs inside the flower nectary. Good. katanya from India has satiny green leaves.

A tip from Dr. Glicenstein for those going hiking in the Western states, straight out of Native American and frontier folklore: several Goodyera species are said to be effective at curing venom, perhaps courtesy of their snakeskin-like leaf markings. The procedure is simplicity itslef; if you're bitten, just grab the snake and make it bite itself, then let it go -- it will head for the nearest goodyera plant. Follow it to the orchid, pull it out of the snake's mouth, nibble away and you're cured!

A few rarer genera include Nephelphyllum, with gorgeous bronze purple leaves; Oeceoclades, which includes the tropical orchid "weed" Oec. maculata as well as some fabulous species that look almost like pinkish-gray rocks; and Malaxis, mostly tiny-flowered species with some highly colored and patterned leaves.

Jewel Orchid Hybrids:

According to Dr. Glicenstein, the first intergeneric orchid hybrid ever was not the famous Calanthe dominyi but a ludisia/dossinia cross, which has now been remade. Hoosier Orchid Company carries a number of jewel orchid hybrids, and with names like Anectodes Charlotte's Web, Dossinyera Tapestry, and Macodesia Spiderman, you just know the leaves are fantastic. Most of these are also more vigorous and easier to grow than the straight species. Pictures don't quite do them justice; if you get a chance to see them in person you'll really understand why they're called jewels.

Painted Leaf Orchids


The genera of Spiranthoideae includes a bunch of wonderfully patterned species, but they neither look nor grow like the jewel orchids, hence the term "painted leaf." Most of these are terrestrial species that grow basal rosettes of leaves, with thick, fleshy flower spikes rising up from the middle. They grow in shady conditions in humid, moist or seasonally dry rainforest habitats. Like jewel orchids, they grow best with little to no direct sunlight, which can scorch the leaves, in shallow pots of well-drained, humus-rich mix. Since they dislike stale conditions at the roots, it's a good idea to repot at least every two years, but keep them fairly tightly potted, as overpotting can also lead to root rot.

First up is Sarcoglottis, with glossy leaves striped and spotted silvery-white. Popular species include Sarcg. sceptrodes and speciousus. The flowers are usually greenish. Srcg. portillae reportedly has a fantastic fragrance as well! You can grow these practically like a regular houseplant in well-draining potting mix. All species need a slight dormant period after flowering, with some requiring a complete break from watering, so it's important to know what species you're growing and what its dormancy needs are.

Stenorrynchos is a South American genus very closely related to Spiranthes, most species have silvery-green leaves in a rosette, with a thick spike emerging from the center. The flowers have bright red bracts and often bloom around the end of the year, though not always in time for Christmas. Styn. speciousus is the most common species; a new species, austrocompactus, is a mini version of speciousus, which can get large if allowed to grow to specimen size.

Stennoglottis is an African genus, with some species having purple-spotted leaves. Sngl. fimbriata is being line-bred to increase the size and density of spotting, and its flowers are a lovely lilac with darker spots in the lip. Like Sarcoglottis, it needs a dry resting period after flowering, where it will drop its leaves before putting up new growth in spring, so cut way back on watering until you see new foliage appearing.

Painted Leaf Hybrids:

Some very interesting crosses are being made among the painted leaf group, with the aim of improving leaf markings, flower size and color, and ease of growth. This is totally new territory with regards to which species and genera will cross successfully, and what the results will be; aside from the species mentioned above, most orchids in this group have a very short and limited history of commercial cultivation, and new species are still being discovered and brought into the trade, so who knows what the near future will bring us?

Stenosarcos Vanguard, the first intergeneric hybrid in this group, was just registered by Hoosier Orchid Company in 2001. It combines stenorrynchos with sarcoglottis to produce a plant with the leaf markings of the latter and the bright red flower spike of the former. Stenorrhynchos has been crossed with Cyclopogon and Pelexia, two similar terrestrial genera, that introduce shades of pink to the typical red flowers of stenorrhynchos. Stennoglottis Venus is a cross that maximizes the purple spotting of its Stenn. fimbriata parent; Stenn. Bill Fogarty has great flowers but unmarked leaves, technically it's not a painted leaf orchid at all, so perhaps this is the right note to end on!


Anonymous said...

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Truly yours
Timm Clade

Anonymous said...

I seldom leave comments on blogs, but you really impress me, also I have a few questions like to ask, what's your contact details?


Jim Freeman said...

Thanks for the positive comments!

You can always email me with questions at my Dean Street Orchids address, or just ask questions in the comments.